Paul Goldberg comes up with a team of Yiddish-speaking jokester-superheroes who are at the heart of his story, and who make it their mission to avenge countless acts of anti-Semitism, both real and anticipated
Paul Goldberg, The Yid, Picador, 2016.
A DEBUT NOVEL OF DARING ORIGINALITY, THE YID GUARANTEES THAT YOU WILL NEVER THINK OF STALINIST RUSSIA, SHAKESPEARE, THEATER, YIDDISH, OR HISTORY THE SAME WAY AGAIN
Moscow, February 1953. A week before Stalin's death, his final pogrom, "one that would forever rid the Motherland of the vermin," is in full swing. Three government goons arrive in the middle of the night to arrest Solomon Shimonovich Levinson, an actor from the defunct State Jewish Theater. But Levinson, though an old man, is a veteran of past wars, and his shocking response to the intruders sets in motion a series of events both zany and deadly as he proceeds to assemble a ragtag group to help him enact a mad-brilliant plot: the assassination of a tyrant.
While the setting is Soviet Russia, the backdrop is Shakespeare: A mad king has a diabolical plan to exterminate and deport his country's remaining Jews. Levinson's cast of unlikely heroes includes Aleksandr Kogan, a machine-gunner in Levinson's Red Army band who has since become one of Moscow's premier surgeons; Frederick Lewis, an African American who came to the USSR to build smelters and stayed to work as an engineer, learning Russian, Esperanto, and Yiddish; and Kima Petrova, an enigmatic young woman with a score to settle. And wandering through the narrative, like a crazy Soviet Ragtime, are such historical figures as Paul Robeson, Solomon Mikhoels, and Marc Chagall.
As hilarious as it is moving, as intellectual as it is violent, Paul Goldberg's THE YID is a tragicomic masterpiece of historical fiction
“An extraordinary novel… The Yid is about Stalinism, anti-Semitism, racism and more in 1950s Russia and it struck me as incredibly relevant. Goldberg’s protagonist, for example, compares political purges to epidemics that “start out with a small, concentrated population, then expand their reach nationally, even globally.” Epidemics of infectious diseases, he says, “can reach a peak” before inevitably receding. He concludes that fascism is an infectious disease and Stalinism is a plague. Neither can survive, but in their long brutality many people suffer and die. I can’t be the only one to read this book and think of Donald Trump’s vicious talk and insidious proposals when it comes to Muslims, immigrants and refugees.”―Elayne Clift
“Paul Goldberg's electric debut novel brings to mind, all at once: Isaac Babel, Malamud, Dostoyevsky's Demons, and Nathan Englander--but his voice is wholly his own. Goldberg turns Stalin's Russia into the stuff of myth, while making it somehow knowable. It is iconoclastic, gleefully profane, anachronistic and coolly modern, bawdy and bloody, antic and razor-smart. Which is to say: The Yid is a rollicking reading experience unlike any other.” ― Daniel Torday
“This is a sly, inventive novel that ripples with a kind of inventiveness in historical fiction that I've rarely seen. 'Historians trawl with broken nets,' says the author. But this is a densely woven net--a text that captures a dark phase of human history with bravura. Real and unreal figures gather as the plot unfolds against the backdrop of Soviet malevolence. Paul Goldberg takes us through a narrative hall of mirrors, makes us wince and laugh, and he never loses his momentum. A brilliant debut novel.” ―Jay Parini
“Paul Goldberg's The Yid is an antic joyride through a grim period in Russian history. With glints of Kafka and 'The Big Lebowski,' Goldberg's artful satire about antisemitism is wholly his own, and proves yet again why Jews own gallows humor.” ―Lisa Zeidner, author of Layover and Love Bomb
“The best historical fiction I've read since The Seven-Percent Solution. If you aren't averse to blood, and if you love Russia and Shakespeare in Yiddish, Paul Goldberg's swashbuckling epic is for you.” ―Kinky Friedman
“Vivid and compelling, Paul Goldberg melds history with the fantastical to illuminate and entertain.” ―Jerome Groopman
The Yid begins 24 February 1953, in the earliest morning hours, three men from state security arriving to take Solomon Shimonovich Levinson into custody. The trio wasn't who Levinson was expecting, but in darkest Stalinist-era Moscow a surprise visit from and arrest by state security for no obvious reason can't come as too much of a surprise either. And these are dark times indeed: in a brief introductory summary Goldberg notes that Stalin was in the midst of: "preparing to solve Russia's Jewish Question definitively", a carefully organized state-sponsored and led pogrom, a Soviet 'Final Solution', having been set into motion. The pogrom was scheduled to begin 5 March -- the day that, instead, Stalin's death was announced.
Levinson had been an actor with GOSET, the Moscow State Jewish Theatre. Not its star -- that was his longtime nemesis, Solomon Mikhoels -- but still. Though he seems almost a sad old madmen when state security begins going through his things, he turns out to be a wise old fool of the classical school instead. Well-trained, too: Levinson does wind up in the soldiers' 'Black Maria' -- but more or less at the wheel, and not in custody but rather a fugitive.
On the run with him is the guest he had been expecting, Friederich Robertovich Lewis, who turned up later that morning. He's an African-American who could pass for Paul Robeson, who had given up on the United States (though without yet having renounced his American citizenship ...) more than two decades earlier, exchanging one form of racism for another: for all the Marxist-Leninist promise that: "National origins and race are negated, voided" he found soon enough that: "race remained un-negated" wherever he went. Still, even if he hasn't fully embraced all things Soviet (and vice-versa), he's done well for himself in the Soviet Union (and remains a hit with the ladies). Related by marriage to Levinson, he stays with him when visiting Moscow -- and now joins him in flight.
On their way out of Moscow they knock on another door: Dr. Aleksandr Sergeyevich Kogan's. Dr.Kogan has good reason to think the knock is more ominous than it is: the Jewish 'doctors' plot' is all the rage, and recent events have made it inevitable that Dr.Kogan will be collateral damage: "His arrest, in the midst of a spectacle, is days away". But instead of arrest, Dr.Kogan finds opportunity at the door: Levinson invites him to join them.
Not that the trio are safe. Anything but. But their plan is audacious -- to go all-in. And given that there's no possibility of retreat, of saving themselves otherwise, what the hell ? As Levinson suggests: The plan is to escalate the process I have begun to its absolute furthest extreme. There is no point in halfway measures. They will not help us in the least. We must go for the top. The very top.
They hide out in a dacha -- joined by a few others over the next few days --, look for confirmation that a large-scale deportation and pogrom is in the works, and deal with those that get in their way. They do arouse some suspicion -- as someone notes: "In our country, people don't disappear", at least not without the help of the authorities, and a growing number of people are proving hard to account for -- but their audacity sees them through -- all the way to the climax, right into the den of the lion.
Goldberg entertainingly fills in backstories and context, of good and bad alike, and his Soviet portrait is sharp and convincing. With sections presented in straight dialogue, scenes right out of Levinson's theatrical performances, and some tense action-scenes, The Yid offers lots of immediacy, along with a good deal of comic relief -- sometimes at odds with the seriousness of the subject-matter (with even Lewis wondering about Levinson and Kogan: "How can they switch so easily from killing to absurdism, from swordplay to wordplay ?"). A lot of the novel has a cinematic feel; if not quite reading like a screenplay, one can almost see the scenes on the big screen.
The Yid is rooted entirely in Soviet history and literature -- among the many nice asides is one on the proper 'curriculum', the order in which to introduce someone to certain writers ("prescribe Zoshchenko and Babel, to develop a sense of the absurd and a sense of history", etc.) -- and Soviet-born Goldberg's familiarity shines through throughout -- yet The Yid is very much a work written at a great remove from the Soviet Union -- and, one can't help think, colored entirely by American experience (and attitudes). Dressed up in the Russian tradition, this is nevertheless a comic-book-simplified American story.
Goldberg's story is guided by an American sense of individualism. Levinson, his hero, claims: Lenin was wrong. It's a mistake to negate the individual's role in history. Class isn't everything. Revolution isn't always the answer. There are times when simple terrorism is good enough.
More pointedly, Levinson points out:
Look what we've done so far. I killed three MGB operatives. That's three armed men. It was so easy. I'm surprised it's not done more often.
In this The Yid is fairy-tale fiction -- of the troubling sort, too, in suggesting that all it would have taken in Soviet times (and, presumably, in similar circumstances under Hitler) is just some good old-fashioned personal resistance. "It was so easy", Levinson claims -- why didn't everyone do it ?
Goldberg's happy ending doesn't come as a surprise -- history records that Stalin died at the beginning of March, 1953, and Goldberg reminded readers that he would right at the start of his novel -- but just how happy it is is also decidedly un-Soviet: Russian comic fiction embraces the absurd, but not like this. But The Yid is an American novel, and Stalin's death is well over half a century back, and maybe enough time has passed so that it's okay to offer up revisionist history of this rose-colored sort (though the offensive underlying accusation -- Why didn't you, you individuals, stand up and just do something ? -- surely still stings).
As pure entertainment, The Yid certainly impresses. There's perhaps a bit much repetition (with translation) of Yiddish and Russian expressions and conversations (a doubled-presentation that anyone with rudimentary Yiddish, German, and/or Russian will come to find particularly annoying), but on the whole Goldberg's writing and presentation impress greatly. This is good writing, and a well-presented story. It's a pretty exciting story too -- The Yid is a superior thriller, and one that offers considerable comic relief, too. But based as it is in history it maybe strikes too close to home -- a comic-book what-could-have-been that couldn't. - M.A.Orthofer
“Mr. Goldberg has written a book that revolves about Stalin’s final blow against the country’s remaining Jews…Mr. Goldberg comes up with a team of Yiddish-speaking jokester-superheroes who are at the heart of his story, and who make it their mission to avenge countless acts of anti-Semitism, both real and anticipated…[He] has drawn heavily on the lives of friends and relatives in Russia without making their presence as characters seem forced…The group of principals grows, as The Yid follows the broad structure of a three-act play. Soon there is a core group determined to stop the deportation and pogrom that could become Stalin’s last gift to Russian Jews…The Yid is about Stalin’s worst enemy as well as his favorite prey. Mr. Goldberg fuses these characters and all that they suggest to Stalin—Paul Robeson for Lewis, Anna Akhmatova for one of the book’s women—into one hellish vision to haunt that dictator during his last hours on earth. So he gets one last gift, too.” —Janet Maslin, Books of the Times
The opening chapter of The Yid…brings to mind the darkly satirical atmosphere of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, enhanced by Goldberg’s ironic commentary on Soviet history and the Yiddish theater. It’s an impressive set-piece… Goldberg has done his homework—amid the story of the gang’s antics we get a seedy and detailed portrait of life under Stalinism, with its sinister initials (NKVD, SMERSH), its street thugs and crooked policemen, its paranoid conspiracies and hypocrisies and state-orchestrated liquidations. Even better, we occasionally get the flavor of the day-to-day torpor… It’s in such quiet moments that The Yid grounds itself more deeply in character and begins to come emotionally alive as a novel.
“The Yid is darkly playful and generous with quick insights into the vast weirdness of its landscape. … We are most immersed in the past, I think, when we watch someone manipulate it. This might be, ironically, a lesson Stalin taught too, but it’s still an apt one for readers to consider when engaged with such a fine enterprise as this one.”
“[A] singular debut novel…. An ambitious historical fantasy…. Goldberg’s writing is as spry and pointed as that pirouette that Levinson executes. There are clever playlets and monologues interspersed into the main narrative here, as well as flashbacks that deepen the humanity of the characters…. Evoking the clash of tone and subject found in movies like The Producers and The Great Dictator, The Yid is a screwball farce about atrocity. History here is portrayed as a mad improvisation in which the actors take charge and manically re-write the script even as they enact it. Paul Goldberg’s animating intelligence gives all this madness a stunning coherence that these days we all too rarely get from either art or life.”
Most fiction and nonfiction accounts of Stalin-era arrests go like this: The secret police come in the night and take the accused away in a Black Maria, to never be seen again. The neighbors sit by quietly, pretending not to have heard a thing. Mr. Goldberg amends this with a very American sensibility, replacing fear and submission with Tarantino-esque swagger. “The Yid” is a literary relative of an action flick and like a good action flick, it’s a morality tale....
What carries “The Yid” is the strength of its premise: It allows for the possibility of resistance instead of resignation in the face of tyranny. Now and again, Mr. Goldberg’s prose gleams with insight: Of an officer who interrogates Doctor Kogan, he writes: “When men like Zaitsev promised to refrain from playing games, they were, in fact, starting a game.” That interrogation scene contains some of the strongest writing in the novel, and it’s more powerful than all the abundant references to Kafka that surround it.
Goldberg’s debut novel opens with a “knock-and-pick” scene set in February 1953 Moscow. Three men in a Black Maria leave the “castle-like gates” of Lubyanka to arrest Solomon Shimonovich Levinson, a Red Army veteran and actor for the defunct State Jewish Theatre. A Yiddish-speaking audience would have rolled with laughter, Goldberg writes, at this pure performance, which “merges comedy, tragedy, absurdity, fantasy, reality…” Levinson performs a triumphant “pirouette with small-swords,” a stage trick, and escapes. So begins a mad, comic yet deadly serious adventure in which the “Old Yid” and sidekicks attempt to assassinate Stalin before he can follow through on his genocidal ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Question’. Goldberg, a Russian émigré to the US in 1973 whose parents’ names were on Stalin’s lists, pulls off a tragicomic tour de force.
The Yid [is a] rollicking romp of a novel… Goldberg's goal, beyond that of entertaining his readers to within an inch of their lives—mission accomplished, by the way—is to provide a satisfying psychological correction, not to the historical record but to the collective imagination. In something like the mode of writer-director Quentin Tarantino in his filmsInglourious Basterds (2009) and Django Unchained (2012), Goldberg offers The Yid as a literary score-settling machine: a way for one of history's most brutal villains to receive a kind of cosmic comeuppance at the hands of those he victimized in real life. The difference is that unlike Tarantino, whose revenge fantasies undercut their higher purpose with an excess of sensational violence, Goldberg is less interested in the body than he is in the soul. Yes, there are killings — knives slashing into throats, thumbs into eye sockets, teeth into arteries — but these are presented, if such a thing is possible, discreetly and clinically. And the novel isn't, in the end, about vengeance per se. It's about restoring a sense of balance to that which is profoundly unbalanced: the role of the human in inhuman events…. The plot, while substantial, exists largely to serve Goldberg's meditations on history and culture, the dark mystery of racial and ethnic prejudice, and the ways in which human comedy and human tragedy are often so intertwined as to be almost indistinguishable…. The Yid is as hilarious as it is appalling, and vice versa.
Goldberg packs layers of meaning and atmosphere into the story, deftly blending humor and horror…. Goldberg’s achievement in The Yid transcends the misery and evil he portrays. Just as Shakespeare inserts jesters among the gore of his tragedies, Goldberg has constructed a tragedy instead of a travesty of the human spirit. He never lets his characters give up hope of solving their predicament. Despite the horrors he shows us, we ought not look away.
In “The Yid,” Goldberg painfully evokes the anti-Semitic atmosphere in which Stalin’s pogrom would have been conducted. One of the book’s casual Jew-haters thinks of his fellow Russians “as strong, passive, good-natured dupes perpetually outwitted by conniving outsiders.” He, too, is mystified by what’s inside the tefillin. “The Jews are trying to get a free ride to Communism, without working up a sweat,” he says. “They strap themselves to Russia, then strap black boxes to their bodies and summon the powers of the Evil One to defeat us.” According to not just Goldberg but several historical sources, the middle of the twentieth century saw the continued durability of the blood libel, the peculiar canard about Jews using the blood of murdered Christian children to make matzo (which makes you wonder, of course, whether anti-Semites have ever even seen matzo).
Paul Goldberg’s debut novel brings together a ragtag group of Russian Jews ready to exact imagined revenge Paul Goldberg’s debut novel – set in the post-World War II Soviet Union – is seriously funny, absurd and violent.
An absorbing historical page-turner that somehow wrings delight from the terrible… Although it doesn’t involve Hitler, the story is perhaps an American Jew’s next-best revenge fantasy: a couple of wisecracking Jewish war veterans team up with a Yiddish speaking African-American engineer and a fearless young half-Jewish orphan to thwart Stalin’s plans for a second Holocaust. Its Hollywood appeal notwithstanding, the book is much better than it sounds — and does such a fine job of recreating its sinister milieu that it’s worth taking a moment to sort out what’s real and what’s not…. Goldberg pushes and pulls history as needed to work his magic…. It’s a good story, but what makes this such a terrific book is the author’s confident mastery of the world he immerses us in, the fascinating and tragic back stories he weaves with little loss of narrative momentum, and his conspiratorial relationship to the reader…. The narrator’s knowing presence is one of several factors, including dialogue presented as if in a play, that gives us the feeling we are not so much reading a novel as attending a live performance.
Goldberg, a reporter and writer who immigrated from the USSR in 1973, has written an absurd novel about an unlikely trio trying to assassinate Stalin. Goldberg gives this engaging story, his fiction debut, a Ragtime feel by introducing real historical figures like Paul Robeson and Marc Chagall and philosophical and literary arguments about Shakespeare, Pushkin, anti-Semitism, and racism –- all set against the backdrop of a brutal era.
Can a novel about anti-Semitism and the brutal absurdity of the Soviet Union in 1953 really be the stuff of high comedy? Give Paul Goldberg’s first novel about racism, genocide, secret police and a plot to assassinate Stalin a whirl. This novel’s black humor is surpassed only by its historical audacity and literary fearlessness. Is it for everyone? No, but if you’re looking for the next “Catch-22,” it may be for you.
On one level, The Yid, Goldberg's first novel, is a tribute to the millions who were exiled and murdered during Stalin's ruthless three-decade reign... On another, it's a celebration of Jewish humor, theater and language — Yiddish is sprinkled throughout the book, and, in choosing the title, Goldberg reclaims the word "yid" from those who've used it as a slur. These are weighty themes, but The Yid wears them with style, because it also happens to be a satisfying thriller.... This is also an improbably funny book.... Replete with imaginative action sequences, smart-alecky sidekicks and a quixotic conspiracy meant to right many years of wrongs, The Yid is a bracing fictional take on a crucial moment in history.
If a plot by two aging Bolshevik fighters to save Soviet Jews by killing Stalin sounds crazy, just wait until you read this book! The Yid is Paul Goldberg’s sophisticated, multiform, madcap romp through the alternative Soviet universe of fantasy as reality set in February 1953… The Yid is a rollicking delight that only a talented Russian could have written. It is rich with Russian cultural references, and the cynical humor and sense of the absurd with which Soviet citizens who didn’t drink the Communist Kool-Aid (or did before seeing its transparency) coped with decades of deprivation, persecution and official nonsense…. Goldberg has a masterful touch of the absurd…. So suspend disbelief, tolerate profanity and kvell seeing old Jews trump tyranny.
Call it, perhaps, a Novel of the Absurd. Or call it tragicomedy, as it turns long held European prejudices against the Jews into the stuff of farce, whether it be nonsensical like the length of noses or infamous like the blood libel. You say Jews need Christian blood for their bread, Levinson and crew will show you blood. You say Jews won’t fight, Levinson and crew will show you there’s fight in the old boys yet. Goldberg’s vision of the world is darkly comic. It is not haphazard that he references work like Kafka’s The Trial; his novel has much in common with the earlier masterpiece…. The Yid is the kind of novel that rewards re-reading. Speed reading, skimming won’t do. This is a book that demands the reader’s attention.
[A] provocative new novel…To call The Yid a black comedy is as understated as saying Usain Bolt moves along at a good clip…. For a sense of Goldberg’s acid tone, imagine a Solzhenitsyn tale set in the lethal Soviet world, but restyled by Larry David…. Goldberg's smart, sarcastic, bitter, occasionally unhinged voice is what makes The Yid remarkable, even for a reader who doesn't remember who the Mensheviks were and why the Bolsheviks wanted to kill them.
Goldberg’s debut novel takes on a mad ruler with a demonic plan — Joseph Stalin. It’s February 1953 in Russia, one week before his own death, when the devious dictator sends his henchmen out to arrest one Solomon Levinson. But the elderly Jewish actor has one performance left in him: He stages a getaway from the goons and instead stirs up a madcap plot to topple the tyrant. To help him in his cause, Levinson enlists a group of ragtag rebels, including a gun-toting surgeon, an Esperanto and Yiddish speaking American expat, and of course a secretive femme fatale.
It’s early 1953 in Stalin’s Russia, and empty cattle cars are rumbling toward population centers across the vast country. Their objective: to collect the nation’s Jews in a final pogrom. In this fantastical (and fantastic) debut novel by reporter and writer Goldberg, who immigrated to the United States from the USSR in 1973, a troupe of unlikely Soviet characters assembles with a single objective. Having heard rumors of the impending pogrom, which would have followed the so-called doctors’ plot (in which numerous Jewish Soviet doctors were actually arrested for supposedly trying to assassinate top Soviet leaders), our band of unlikely conspirators sets out to do in Stalin before his henchmen unleash the pogrom. The conspirators include Solomon Shimonovich Levinson, an elderly actor from the former Jewish State Theater; his friends Aleksandr Kogan, a prominent surgeon who served as a Red Army gunner during the revolution, and Frederick Lewis, an African American working in the country as an engineer; and a mysterious young woman named Kima Petrova. To add to this darkly bubbling froth, the author blends in such historical figures as Paul Robeson, Solomon Mikhoels, and Marc Chagall and treats us to poetry by Anna Akhmatova in Russian and English. The author’s justification (none needed!) for his work: ‘A leap of fiction brings with it the privilege to blend history with fantasy.’
VERDICT: Highly recommended for readers with a grasp of history who enjoy imaginative deviations from what we think we know as historical truth. —Edward B. Cone, New York
"O" The Oprah
No act of violence, no sacred subject, no reference high or low escapes Goldberg’s manic, discursive delight in this novel of an old Jewish stage actor and the unlikely troupe he assembles to assassinate Joseph Stalin.
A] vivid and whip-smart look at the Cold War and its implications for our world today.
“Wily, rambunctiously entertaining [with] irresistible characters....Goldberg’s rapier-like, galvanizing novel unwinds in three acts punctuated by hilarious, flashing, and slashing dialogue as these rebels of temperaments deliberate and impulsive, skills invaluable and surprising, and memories painful and inspiriting, banter, lewdly insult each other, and argue over Shakespeare, Pushkin, Akhmatova, medical ethics, the broken promise of socialism, anti-Semitism, and racism....Goldberg deftly presents plays within plays, in which his heroic, smart, acerbic, wildly improvising, cool-under-fire characters use stagecraft to attempt an impossible mission. Goldberg ingeniously captures the brutality and lunacy of Stalin’s rule as well as Russia’s stoicism in this spectacularly incisive, humanizing, and comedically cathartic theater of the absurd.”
Goldberg’s lively first novel imagines Soviet history as a violent farce that averts a tragedy for Russia’s Jews. The titular “Yid” is Solomon Levinson, a deadly, buffoonish member of a disbanded Yiddish theater company who likens himself to the puppet Petrushka, a “sad, angry clown battling the forces of history.” In the novel’s breathtaking opening, Levinson verbally duels with, and then brutally dispatches, three soldiers sent to capture him as part of a pogrom in 1953. Stalin, a paranoid “alter kaker” holed up in his country dacha, has given orders to “forever rid the Motherland” of its Jewish population. Levinson decides that the only hope for him and Soviet Jews is to stage a play of his own that deposes the genocidal tyrant. The slightly unhinged director, for whom the lines between stage and reality are blurred, assembles a cast to aid him in his improvised plot, including an accomplished doctor, an orphaned young woman, and an African-American Communist disillusioned at finding the same racism in Soviet Russia as he did in Jim Crow America. Divided into three acts, the novel zips along even as Goldberg smuggles in a healthy dose of fascinating Soviet history—its revolutionaries, artists, absurdities, and poisonous anti-Semitism. The result is a stretch of fictionalized history so fully realized it feels as though it actually happened. (Feb.)
The Yid is a quirky mixture of tones, blending the somber import of Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer with the madcap humor of Gary Shteyngart. The story is set in 1953, shortly before the death of Soviet premier Joseph Stalin, and in Moscow Jews are regularly seized and persecuted or killed by KGB agents driving vans in the dark. As the novel opens, Solomon Levinson, a former Yiddish theater actor, is due to be taken away. But Levinson fights back, slaying his would-be captors via a folk dance wielding a pair of daggers. Levinson goes into hiding with the help of a few cohorts, including a soldier turned surgeon and an African-American man who defected to the Soviet Union to escape racism at home. But instead of laying low, Levinson is eager to double down: What if he did more than take out KGB agents? What if they assassinated Stalin?
In Goldberg's debut, set in 1953, a pair of offbeat Jewish characters and an American Negro come to terms with life, death, and theater as Stalin's final pogrom gains steam. Divided into three "acts," the book opens with an early-morning knock on the door of Levinson, a frail old veteran of the Red Army and the now-defunct State Jewish Theater. Surprised at how open Levinson is to their visit, a state security official and two soldiers quickly discover he is no harmless clown via his sudden "pirouette with Finnish daggers." A short time later, Levinson joins up with Kogan, a noted surgeon he knows from the army, and Lewis, a black friend who came to the Soviet Union from the United States for a factory job, to dispose of the three dead bodies, get rid of a black security van, and make plans to assassinate Stalin. The killings become an excuse for them to trade mortal visions, political philosophies, and especially tales of the days when Levinson, dubbed "the janitor of human souls," took a back seat to the great actor Solomon Mikhoels, who, before his murder in 1948, was director of the Jewish Theater. Largely based on stories passed down by the author's father and grandfather, the book contains facts that still unsettle. You could squeeze 60 people into a single cattle car "if you don't care how many of them are still breathing upon arrival," the 400,000 Jewish citizens of Moscow into 130 such trains, and the entire Jewish population of the USSR into 730 trains. But this sophisticated entertainment transcends historical detail with flighty dialogue exchanges that, presented in script style, seem like a cross between Samuel Beckett and Sholem Aleichem. References to other real-life figures, including Paul Robeson and Marc Chagall, add to the color. For all its dark, discursive content, Goldberg's novel about unlikely rebels plotting Stalin's downfall is streaked with hard-earned wisdom.
“Filled with large literary doses of Shakespeare, Gogol, and Sophocles, Goldberg’s historical novel boasts flashes of brilliance… The Yid is a well-written, darkly comedic novel of historical fiction, with memorable characters and a delectable touch of the absurd.” —Gary Katz
Paul Goldberg's debut novel, The Yid, is a wildly imaginative account of Josef Stalin's death that combines elements of drama, thriller and farce into an energetic alternate history of the dictator's demise... The Yid offers an opportunity to contemplate what one tyrant's end might have been like if justice ever truly were poetic.
Paul Goldberg’s debut novel aims to give the Soviet Union its own version of Inglourious Basterds. Set in 1953 Moscow, The Yid features a small band of friends (most of them over 60) who decide to fight back against a proposed Holocaust-like pogrom of Russian Jews by assassinating Joseph Stalin. Unfortunately, this lean premise gets bogged down with too many references. Russia has one of the richest artistic traditions in the world, and Goldberg plugs himself in. He triangulates Pushkin’s poetry, Stanislavsky’s Method acting, and Gogol’s surrealism to attempt a referendum on the nature of madness and the historic evil of the anti-Semitic “blood libel.” There’s a lot going on, which makes it hard to keep track of everything. The book’s more vivid sequences sometimes get lost in a tangle of bilingual dialogue, alternating formats, and shifting tenses.
Paul Goldberg was born in Moscow in 1959 and emigrated to the U.S. at age 14. An award-winning investigative reporter, he is the editor and publisher of The Cancer Letter, a weekly publication focused on the business and politics of cancer. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and elsewhere, and he has been featured on 60 Minutes, 20/20, CNN and NPR. He is the author of two books on the Soviet human rights movement, The Final Act and The Thaw Generation (with Ludmilla Alexeyeva), and co-author (with Otis Brawley) of a book about the American healthcare system, How We Do Harm. The Yid is his first novel.